The question of what role European nations and institutions should play in Asian Security has been given a twist by the Brexit decision and what it reveals about people’s differing assumptions on the UK relationship to its European neighbours. Britain’s pivot to Asia (which stared around 2011 before Brexit was even a twinkle in David Cameron’s eye) is starting to bear fruit just as the leave/remain battle approaches its climax in the lead up to the magic date of March 29th.
UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s speech at the IISS in Singapore (Britain’s role in a post-Brexit world) has set off the latest round of discussion about how much Brexit has or should have to do with European engagement in Asian security. It was just preceded by an interview given to the Telegraph by the UK Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson (30 December 2018) in which it seemed that the UK was determined to open new bases in the Caribbean and South East Asia.
The FT responded first with an article by its chief foreign affairs commentator, Gideon Rachman: The Military aims of ‘Global Britain’ should be realistic: opening a base in Asia is not the best use of scarce resources.
With less than three months to go until Brexit, the race is on to define that elusive term, “Global Britain”. Gavin Williamson, UK defence secretary, announced this week that Brexit is “our moment to be that true global player once more — and I think the armed forces play a really important role as part of that”. Fleshing out this ambition, Mr Williamson revealed in a newspaper interview that the UK intends to open two new military bases overseas — one in the Caribbean and one in south-east Asia. He placed particular emphasis on the idea that Britain is reversing its decision, made in the 1960s, to withdraw its forces “east of Suez”. “That is a policy that has been ripped up,” the defence secretary asserted. A great deal has certainly changed in the half century since that strategic retrenchment. But few of those changes suggest that it is a good idea for Britain once again to seek a military role in Asia.
Gideon Rachman concludes that:
The group of democratic nations that is best placed to balance a rising China is the “quad” of the US, Japan, India and Australia. The addition of British or French military resources might add some symbolic force to the effort. But it could also complicate matters, if China decided to follow its favourite playbook and target the weakest link in a coalition with an economic, diplomatic or even military response. The British government’s urge to present a confident face to the world as Brexit looms is entirely understandable. But military ambitions, without the resources to back them, risk making the UK look foolish rather than forceful.
Shortly after, the question of whether the UK has the capacity for playing a ‘realistic’ role in Asian security was answered by the Henry Jackson Society ‘Audit of Geopolitical Capability’ that used a detailed set of statistics to argue that Britain has the potential to be the number two world power. James Rogers, who compiled the HJS report (and is also director of the HJS Global Britain Programme) responded to Gideon Rachman’s opinion piece thus:
The FT op-ed got some pushback from Australian strategist Euan Graham
The base issue was only the start. When it came to the context behind – the conception of Global Britain’s role in the world, other prominent commentators were less supportive of the Foreign Secretary’s ambition:
Objections also arose in terms of priority (local security in Europe is more important):
The situation looks confused and well it might, since it is the result of several things happening at once:
- China is more assertive and most dramatically in the claims it is pursuing in the South China Sea. The PRC can now deploy military capabilities that significantly raise the cost for the US to maintain the credibility of its alliance commitments in the region.
- President Trump’s America First approach is making allies less sure of US support if push comes to shove.
- Russia has been pushing back against NATO and EU enlargement towards the East. Sanctions have hurt but not reversed aggression in Georgia and Ukraine nor have they deterred assassination and information operations that appear aimed at weakening the coherence of the West.
- Europe is feeling vulnerable from a combination of US pressure on trade and defence spending, Russian intimidation, the weakening of the EU as a result of Brexit, and its own lack of cohesion in coping with internal problems such as Eurozone policy, migration and populist challenges to mainstream politics.
- Asian states like Japan are looking beyond the US alliance to broaden security partnerships with countries like the UK, France and India.
- The UK is on the point of Brexit and naturally this leads to a re-assessment of its strategic position and options. The ensuing debate creates opportunities for aspiring political leaders to inspire the British public with their bright ideas.
When it comes to European security and the future role of the UK, the issue boils down to three questions -each with their own links to the Brexit issue:
- Is it necessary or wise for the UK to attempt a serious contribution to Asian security?
- Yes, because we are going to be Global Britain. “I find that folk want Britain more involved, not less” writes Tom Tugendhat, chair of the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. And it is necessary Britain is one of the few countries that can.
- No, because British security is European security, and it should act accordingly by focusing on threats from Russia, terrorism and migration drivers in Africa and invest in collective action by supporting EU institutions. As Gideon Rachman put it in the FT:
Britain, along with its democratic allies around the world, should certainly seek to play an active role in maintaining peace and security. But a realistic division of labour suggests that the UK should concentrate on security threats in Europe and its immediate neighbourhood, leaving its friends and allies in the Indo-Pacific to handle the problems in that region.
- Given the power shifts going on in Asia, does the UK have the capacity to make a meaningful contribution in Asia?
- Yes, because Britain remains a leading military and economic power with a special set of long range deployment capacities, and a global strategic world view.
- No, because Britain is in the grip of imperial delusions and nostalgia for its days as a colonial power. We have to accept that China is becoming so powerful it is up to the US and Asians to respond.
- If the UK decides it can and should make such a contribution, are the costs, liabilities and trade-offs worth it?
- Yes, they are but anyway it is a false choice. As a de facto global power (one of the very few with global military, intelligence, diplomatic, economic and cultural reach) and a de jure UN P5 member with obligations for looking beyond immediate defence interests, the UK has no choice but to take a global role if it is to remain itself. As the US pivots to Asia, support to its objectives East of Suez actually bind us closer to our NATO ally.
- No. The UK has to be ‘realistic‘, which means it has to face up to the fact that in a world of predatory powers like Russia, China and even a self-serving US, it can only hope for any kind of sovereignty if it pools its resources and national energies with its European partners, and merges its security agenda into a EU common foreign and security policy.
The answers to these questions are shaped to a remarkable degree by where the speaker stands on the causes, modalities, and consequences of Brexit and what that says about the UK’s long term relationship to Europe and its position in the world.
Both argue for a larger role, with the difference being that one sees Britain itself as capable of defining and executing that role either alone or with its global partners (USA, but also Australia, Canada and Japan, etc.), and the other sees Britain as only being able to play a significant role beyond its borders if it embeds itself in the EU.
But one problem remains. If Britain follows the ‘realistic’ course, concentrating on supporting security only in its European neighborhood, then who else from Europe is going to step in? A recent report from the Real Institute Elcano on Europe-Japan security partnership captures the current state of affairs. The UK-Japan quasi alliance comes through relatively strongly. Then would a rejection of Global Britain risk the end of meaningful European engagement in Asian security and the end of a global security role for Europeans?